Opportunity Is Measure of True Wealth: Edited extract of Jennifer Westacott’s Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Sambell Oration

Edited extract of Jennifer Westacott’s Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Sambell Oration published in The Australian, 24 November 2011

I do not come from the usual background for someone in a business leadership role.

But in a country like Australia, or in any country for that matter, true wealth is not measured by GDP per capita but by stories of opportunity like mine.

It’s a story of someone who grew up in public housing, went to a public school, whose parents had jobs – not careers – and who, for a large part of their life, relied on social security.

When business talks about economic growth, it’s usually interpreted as self-serving and not to be trusted. But I have not met one business leader who isn’t focused on a broad concept of community enrichment, as opposed to getting rich.

For them, like me, true wealth, shared wealth, common wealth, is not measured by the wealth of the richest people. True wealth, to me, is a sense of confidence and wellbeing: the confidence that historian Kenneth Clarke talks about in his wonderful series Civilisation.

Clarke argues that societies that derive their confidence from social, physical and economic mobility, and the stability and strength of their democratic institutions, are societies that look beyond today, that look and plan well into the future. They think about the next 100, 1000 years and they look out, not in.

What I am describing is an interconnected aspiration of economic and social prosperity.

But if we are going to achieve it in Australia, something is going to have to give – in a policy sense, in the way institutions work in our society and in our attitudes towards each other.

Unless our industries and businesses are prosperous, thriving and competitive, we cannot create national wealth and we certainly cannot use or share something we do not have.

Many people see businesses as takers and I appreciate that there are legitimate concerns about some business practices.

But we need to remember that there is a massive flow-on effect from a successful business community and if big business fails, the economy fails. And if the economy fails, as we have seen in parts of Europe, everyone pays.

Our fundamental thesis is that we need to grow the economic pie. To do that we need to support wealth-generating parts of our economy through ethical, sustainable market arrangements.

But creating true wealth for Australia into the future – and doing better in ensuring it benefits everyone – requires some difficult conversations.

What we see in Europe are not just austerity measures. The fundamentals of the social contract and democracy are being revisited.

This is a sign that political classes worldwide have been incapable of tough and inclusive conversations. They have put retaining power over and above the exercise of responsible government.

The conversation about balancing profit and pay is important because there is real frustration out there that people are somehow not sharing in the wealth being created in Australia. But it needs to be based on data, not perceptions, and the story in Australia has been pretty good.

We need to make sure we have non-intrusive policy settings that don’t risk the balance that has underpinned economic growth in Australia for 20 or 30 years.

An important conversation about the adequacy and affordability of social security payments began at last month’s tax forum. If we are going to have greater targeting of welfare, we have to make sure it’s adequate because entrenching people in poverty is not a pathway back to employment.

But we can’t spread payments so far across the economy that welfare loses its meaning for people who need it.

This is controversial because it means people having to give things up. And it certainly requires government to stop promising things our nation can’t afford and pretending we can make important changes without anyone giving up anything.

Workplace relations is another tough conversation.

Ultimately, we are going to have to come to terms with the fact we live in a very competitive global environment and some industries are not going to make it if they can’t change the way they do things.

The dilemma is how we create a modern labour market that works from the point of view of all stakeholders. This must support our international competitiveness and wealth creation, and it must provide meaningful, satisfying and well-paid employment for all who want it.

If we return to a poisonous industrial relations culture versus one of mutual respect and understanding, companies will fail, with devastating effects for the people who work in them.

We need to start having these tough conversations now. The era of economic adjustment we are coming into means we have to adjust our mechanisms, our institutions and our understanding to keep generating prosperity, to pick up people who have been left out, and make sure we don’t lose a whole lot more along the way.

My fear is that while Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and John Howard and Peter Costello provided the kind of reform leadership that underpinned wealth creation, today we get to the precipice of reform and then back away because we don’t want to have the tough conversation.

We need to breathe new life into social and economic policy.

We need to mirror current economic growth with creative social policy and unprecedented investment in lasting wealth creation through infrastructure, education, housing and social and health services.

A few years ago I saw a young girl walking down a laneway at the Bidwell housing estate in western Sydney. I wondered who would be the circuit-breaker for this kid. Did she have a wonderful grandmother or uncle like I did? Would she have a couple of teachers like I did who put in the time and the effort to help her realise her potential?

We, as a community, have to be that girl’s circuit-breaker.

We have to unleash the wealth-creating parts of our society. We have to invest that wealth in the services and infrastructure she needs to lead a fulfilling life.

We have to be confident that wherever her life takes her is a destination shaped by the choices she has been free to make, not a life story that was forced upon her. Surely that is what we mean by true wealth.